Essential oils are the oil-based aromatic extracts derived from the leaves, stems, fruit, bark, flowers, roots, or seeds of plants. They are a highly concentrated form of volatile oils — another name for essential oils — and have many beneficial properties. Historians estimate that humans have been using essential oils for 5,000 to 6,000 years for medicinal, cosmetic, and hygienic purposes. The earliest methods and technology did not produce the essential oils we are familiar with today. Whereas many of today’s essential oil producers focus on purity, the ancient versions were likely adulterated with stray plant materials, debris, and other oils. As time passed, extraction methods and technology improved. Let's look more at how essential oils are created and the many ways they can be used.
How Are Essential Oils Created?
There are a few ways to create essential oils, and the ideal extraction process is determined by the oil’s source and how well its phytoconstituents respond to extraction. Distillation and using solvents are the most popular ways to extract essential oils. Plants or oils that are too delicate for distillation must be expressed, mechanically crushed, or extracted using solvents. Others, like whole citrus fruits, may be mechanically rolled over needles that puncture and release essential oils, a process known as the ecuelle or scarification method.
When using the distillation method, there are three distinct ways to obtain oils: water distillation, water and steam distillation, and steam distillation. Pure steam distillation is the most gentle of the distillation extraction methods. In water distillation, the plant material is boiled, and the essential oils are decanted off the water. Water-steam distillation involves both boiling and steaming the plant material.
Steam distillation takes place in a still. If the essential oils are processed fresh, this typically takes place in or near the same field from which the plant is harvested to preserve the delicate phytochemicals. The heat from the still forces the plant matter to release its oils at the lowest temperature possible to prevent burning or denaturing the more fragile phytochemicals. The steam carries the essential oils through the equipment to condense in another section of the still with the water. The essential oils are poured off the top of this water. This water, called hydrosol, contains the water-soluble, aromatic phytoconstituents of the plant. Hydrosols are often used in cosmetics for their more subtle aroma and gentle, beneficial effects on the skin.
Enfleurage is an old, tedious, and expensive method of collecting essential oils. Historically, essential oil producers used it for fragile plant sources, such as jasmine flowers, that couldn’t tolerate more aggressive extraction methods. The process involves gently placing flowers on top of a fatty medium, either a scent-free vegetable oil or lard, so that the volatile oils would transfer into the fat. These flowers were continually and regularly replaced on the surface of the medium until it was thoroughly imbued with the desired oils. Once completed, the producer would use alcohol to separate the essential oil from the fatty medium by allowing the alcohol to evaporate away.
A relatively new technology for extracting essential oils is called supercritical CO2 extraction. This method applies high barometric pressure under specific temperature conditions to release the oil from its source. Liquid CO2 is used as a solvent and poured over the plant matter to release the essential oils. Sometimes ethanol is added to this process. Afterward, the CO2 (or ethanol) evaporates, and only the essential oil remains.
Alcohol tinctures are another method of extraction that uses ethanol to release essential oils. The plant matter is submerged in alcohol, and the volatile oils of the plant are extracted by the ethanol. One potential downside of these tinctures is that they contain as much as 60-90% alcohol, and may not be an appropriate choice for everyone.
How to Select Essential Oils
The best quality essential oils are 100% pure, organically grown, and minimally processed. Many phytochemicals are sensitive to heat, light, and harsh chemical solvents, so they must be handled gently to retain the full spectrum of their beneficial constituents. If an essential oil provider doesn’t openly explain how they extract their oils, consider a different brand.
Though the scientific community is skeptical, some aromatherapists ascribe to an idea called an energy signature. They believe that living beings resonate at a particular frequency and life experiences, or processes in the case of essential oils, change the speed at which their molecules vibrate. This energetic signature is what they believe provides the many health benefits of essential oils.
The Top 33 Uses of Essential Oils
Essential oils do much more than just smell nice; they have a variety of health-promoting and helpful uses. Try essential oils the next time you want to soothe a headache, reinvigorate your mind, calm frayed nerves, or any of the other uses for essential oils listed below.
1. Clean Surfaces, Air, and Clothes
Many natural and organic cleaning products already contain essential oils as they tend to have antimicrobial properties. Beyond just cleaning surfaces, the volatility of these oils makes them ideal for reducing microbial contaminants in the air. For example, you can:
- Use eucalyptus and tea tree oil to freshen humid rooms like the bathroom.
- Add a few drops of lavender oil to a dry washcloth and throw it in the dryer with your wet clothes.
- Use lemongrass or rosemary to freshen and disinfect the fridge or freezer by sprinkling a few drops on a damp washcloth and wiping down surfaces.
- Freshen up your gym bag, locker, car, or shoes with a few drops on a cotton ball or piece of felt.
2. Get Rid of Shower Mildew
Shower mold is unsightly and unhealthy. To get rid of it, liberally sprinkle eucalyptus oil on any areas that have darkened, especially grout or the tracks of sliding shower doors. You can also apply to stubborn spots with a cotton swab.
3. Promote Skin Health
There are several skin care benefits that essential oils provide. Patchouli and clary sage slow skin aging and increase cell turnover to reveal fresh, glowing skin. Orange oil revitalizes aging skin by promoting collagen production, just like the vitamin C in the whole orange.
Apply a drop of bergamot oil to soothe dry, cracked, or inflamed skin. Chamomile also helps moisturize dry skin to soothe itchiness. For dandruff, add a few drops of tea tree oil to your shampoo bottle and shake well to distribute evenly.
Patchouli also calms irritated skin and expedites wound repair. Slow or stop a small cut from bleeding with a small dab of cypress oil.
4. Moisturize Hands and Nails
For a DIY cuticle oil, dilute lemon or rosemary oil into sweet almond oil and rub into bare nails.
5. Clear Blemishes
Basil, bergamot, and cedarwood will help clear blemishes. A compress made with bergamot oil promotes the healing process by soothing swollen, painful skin eruptions. Cedarwood and orange oil help balance the production of skin oils.
6. Encourage Supple Lips
Topical bergamot oil minimizes pain from lip conditions, while lemongrass and peppermint promote clear, moisturized lips.
7. Calm Anxiety and Promote Relaxation
Essential oils are well known for their ability to improve mood. Lavender is thought to be so effective at reducing feelings of anxiety that it’s encapsulated and taken orally by some people. Diffuse oregano, basil, black pepper, and cedarwood in a humidifier to create a calming home or work environment.
8. Discourage Harmful Organisms
Several essential oils are good for addressing topical Candida overgrowth, so you’ll have no trouble finding one that suits your preference. These include lavender, peppermint, sage, tea tree oil, thyme, tulsi, and clary sage. Make sure to apply them correctly. If your preferred essential oil requires a carrier oil, mix into lotion or coconut oil to apply.
For athlete’s foot, rub a few drops of cedarwood into your skin, or mix a couple of drops of tea tree oil into a teaspoon of a carrier oil and massage into skin. For nail fungus, use a cotton swab to apply 100% tea tree oil to the affected area.
9. Create a Rejuvenating Bath Elixir
Add a few drops of lavender, lemon balm, jasmine, or chamomile to your next hour-long soak. Drop the oil on your bath salts, on your bath bomb, or add it directly to the water. Boost the efficacy of your foot bath by resting tired feet and killing fungi. If you're prone to urinary tract discomfort, using bergamot oil in the bath helps keep your bladder and kidneys healthy.
10. Assist Recovery After a Workout
Add a few drops of lavender, rosemary, or rose oil to a damp hand towel and freeze it. Fold over your eyes during savasana at yoga or drape it around your neck after your workout to cool down and boost your mood.
11. Increase Alertness
Mix a few drops of eucalyptus and peppermint oil together in your humidifier to increase alertness. You can also try basil oil, bergamot, and black pepper for similar results.
12. Boost Memory and Concentration
Inhale the vapors of black pepper, cypress oil, or eucalyptus to boost your concentration. Clary sage, cloves, sage, and coriander increase your ability to concentrate with the bonus of increasing your recall.
13. Deepen Meditation
To deepen your meditation practice, inhale the vapors of benzoin and cypress oil. It can help increase your focus and turn your thoughts inward.
14. Repel Insects
Peppermint, lemongrass, basil, and eucalyptus are natural insect deterrents. Either diffuse the oils to deter mosquitos, or use a mixture of the essential oil in vegetable glycerin and water and spray lightly on clothing. Just make sure to shake well first.
15. Support Normal Digestion
There are many ways that essential oils can help relieve gastric upset like bloating and gas. Lemongrass relieves gas and helps your body recover from stomach distress. For indigestion, dab a dry mint with peppermint oil. After letting it soak in thoroughly, quickly crunch the mint and swallow. For heartburn, use the same method but with chamomile oil. To relieve gas, stimulate appetite or prevent constipation, try basil, black pepper, or coriander oil.
16. Boost Cleansing and Detoxification
To stimulate your body's natural cleansing abilities, dilute 3 drops of fennel oil into a teaspoon of olive or flax oil and swallow.
17. Calm Upset Stomach
Peppermint has long been used to quell nausea, and it’s an effective non-pharmaceutical option for people undergoing aggressive medical therapies, but there’s no scientific evidence it helps with morning sickness. You can also try inhaling the scent of ginger, peppermint, or coriander.
18. Appetite Suppressant
Inhale fennel or bitter orange to suppress appetite.
19. Encourage a Happy Mood
Surround yourself with uplifting scents when you’re feeling down in the dumps. Chamomile and clary sage resist down moods, basil oil brings about feelings of joy, and eucalyptus increases optimism.
20. Boost the Immune System
Many essential oils stimulate the immune system. Add them to your diffuser to reap the health benefits.
21. Promote Respiratory Comfort
Calm a cough with cedarwood and clary sage. If you already have a sore throat, soothe it with bergamot, lavender, or black cumin seed oil. If your lungs ache from coughing, inhale the scent of benzoin to soothe the discomfort. To reduce feelings of bronchial tightness, add 10 drops of clary sage to your humidifier. For a runny nose, inhale cypress or eucalyptus oil through your nose to dry it up.
22. Support Easy Breathing
Many OTC medicines contain chemicals that help loosen thick phlegm (so you expel it), but there are several natural ways to break through chest congestion. Use your humidifier to moisten dry air and diffuse the vapors of essential oils like benzoin, cedarwood, Manila elemi and eucalyptus to loosen phlegm and make your coughs more productive.
23. Clear Nasal Passages
To clear a stuffy nose, inhale the scent of basil or black pepper oil.
24. Relieve Headache
Apply lavender, ginger, lemongrass, or willow bark to your temples to relieve headache pain. Dilute a few drops of eucalyptus or peppermint in a carrier oil and apply the same way, or simply rub a few drops between your hands and inhale the scent.
25. Topical Pain Relief
To relieve local pain, apply clove, echinacea, kava, or myrrh topically to the affected area.
26. Menstrual Pain Relief
Attenuate menstrual pain with basil oil, chamomile, or clary sage. Rub undiluted chamomile on the abdomen, or dilute basil or clary sage oil in an equal amount of sweet almond oil and apply.
27. Ease Symptoms of Menopause
For hot flashes, keep a bottle of clary sage on you. Rub a few drops into your hands and inhale the aroma to quell a hot flash.
28. Calm Joint and Muscle Discomfort, Swelling, and Stiffness
Massage black pepper, chamomile, basil, coriander, or eucalyptus into the skin to relieve joint and muscle stiffness and soreness. Dilute the essential oils according to the directions on the bottle.
29. Encourage Restful Sleep
Dispel insomnia with chamomile. Either rub some onto your chest, add it to your humidifier, or sprinkle lightly on your pillow case.
30. Flavor Foods
To flavor your hot chocolate, add a drop or two of peppermint in your cocoa.
31. Promote Hair Growth
Some believe cedarwood and clary sage stimulate hair growth. Add a few drops to your shampoo to apply.
32. Add Shine to Hair
Return some luster to your locks with basil or chamomile oil. Evenly distribute 2-3 drops into dry hands and comb your hair with your fingers to coat strands lightly.
33. Enjoy a Pleasant Fragrance
You can use essential oils to scent your home, car, or even yourself. Dilute a little rose, orange, lavender, and lemon oil in jojoba and rub into your pressure points for a perfume. To fresh your breath, add a drop of peppermint oil to your toothbrush and brush as normal after using toothpaste. For your home, use a humidifier to distribute the oil’s aroma throughout your house.
Be careful about putting essential oils in your car. Some oils contain plant compounds that, while natural, may be rough on finishes. You can easily apply a few drops to a cotton ball, piece of cardboard, or felt and put it somewhere in your car to keep it smelling fresh and clean.
Essential Safety Tips for Using Essential Oils
The dose is what matters most when using essential oils at home. Always check the label or consult your trusted essential oil producer’s website to ensure you’re correctly using these powerful oils. Many essential oils must be diluted to prevent skin irritation, and some should only be used in humidifiers or diffusers.
Follow the directions when using essential oils. In addition to skin irritation, some essential oils increase your susceptibility to sunburn when applied to the skin. If you’re pregnant, nursing, or trying to get pregnant, consult with your healthcare practitioner before using any essential oils, even if you’ve used them before. Some essential oils stimulate the shedding of the uterine lining and should be completely avoided. If you cannot find information on the essential oil you want to use, do not apply to your skin or ingest it.
Some essential oil producers intentionally dilute their oils to make them safer for consumer use or to lower the price of extremely expensive oils like neroli. Make sure to buy your essential oils from organic sources and check to see that they are of high-quality if you intend to use them pure. If you’re not yet ready to try using pure or undiluted essential oils, you can always try products that contain them — there’s no shortage of options. Luminous features a blend of essential oils, each selected to promote beautiful, radiant-looking skin.
- "Aromatherapy." University of Maryland Medical Center. University of Maryland Medical Center, 1997. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
- "EXTRACTION METHODS OF NATURAL ESSENTIAL OILS." N.p.: Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
- Wilson, Roberta. "The Essential Guide to Essential Oils: The Secret to Vibrant Health and Beauty." United States: Avery Publishing Group Inc.,U.S., 2016. Print.
- "How Are Essential Oils Extracted?" National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. 2017. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
- Rhind, Jennifer Peace, and David Pirie. "Essential Oils: A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice." N.p.: Singing Dragon, 2012. Print.
- "Are Essential Oils Safe?" University of Minnesota. Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing, 2016. Web. 30 Jan. 2017
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.